[I guess it would take a big event for me to break my hiatus on writing blogs. Unfortunately I thought it would be a happier event and not this melancholic one.]
Ok, so I shamelessly lifted the title for this post from Siddhartha Vaidyanathas’s Cricinfo article of 2008. But there is no better way for me to express this and he pretty much sums up how I feel today as a cricket fan (and that too a fan of Indian cricket). He was talking about the retirement of a group of cricketers (Kumble, Ganguly, Laxman, Tendulkar and Dravid); about how many of us had grown up watching these icons, from their debut to their current standing and everything in between; and how we would all feel a void when they retire, which will be sooner than later. Today, I felt the same way but it struck me much harder – that hypothetical situation had come to pass, the day I dreaded the most for Indian cricket is here – Rahul Dravid has announced his retirement from all forms of international and first class cricket.
Ok so he was dropped (and “retired” from 3 years later) from the ODI team a few years ago. I was really angry then and felt that he was being made the scapegoat for a disastrous world cup campaign – instead of the entire team, the coach and the BCCI taking blame, they decided to drop Dravid, not just from the captaincy but from the team itself! And this when he had set himself up to be the best finisher in the ODI game for the previous 3-4 years and gone over 10,000 runs in the format. “Such injustice” I thought and railed and ranted about it to whoever would listen. With each passing year and tour my hopes that he would return to the ODI team reduced further. But when they did pick him in 2011 it seemed like a mockery of the whole situation – the BCCI wanted to save face and in desperation turned to the one person who wouldn’t let them down. I guess even he realized the absurdity of the situation and promptly “retired” from ODI. “Good for you, Dravid” I thought, “show them that these stupid political machinations are a total farce”! In fact, I felt great sadness that he was not part of the team that won the 2011 world cup. The reason why India has the confidence and the ability to win in ODI matches and tournaments is due to Dravid and his generation of players. He, as one of the best finishers of the game showed us how to successfully chase 300+ scores. I remember in the mid 90s where India would get to the finals and semi-finals of major tournaments and then lose.
But there was something that I held on to – that he would continue to be a cornerstone of the Indian test batting lineup. His place in that can never be shaken, that the team without his contributions would crumble and that I (and millions of other fans) would enjoy watching the beauty of test cricket led by the one person that epitomizes it most – Rahul Dravid. With each passing year and test series, my admiration of the player grew and the fans’ trust in him wasn’t misplaced – 2011 was the perfect example of that. In a year when all the superstars of Indian cricket collectively failed (heck they were humiliated) in foreign conditions, Rahul Dravid flourished. He showed what classical test cricket was all about; in fact it shows what cricket is all about – the grit, the patience, the mental strength, the ability to dig yourself out of a hole and hold steadfast when all around you is falling apart. To gain the respect of not just your fans and teammates, but from your most ardent opponents. Five centuries later, the only reason an Indian cricket fan will look back on 2011 was to see that purity of sport and determination that was Rahul Dravid playing test cricket. Alas, that is no more since he announced his retirement today.
Watching Dravid bat is quite unlike anything else. It is something that people (and future generations) can only see and understand if they follow test cricket and all days of a match with ardent fervour. You cannot tell someone about how well he played to hold off opposition attacks for days on end. It is not about the match winning innings he plays, but about the balls he doesn’t play. While Sehwag makes huge (300+ scores) with his wild abilities, Dravid can judge a ball and makes his decision to leave it alone in a split second. There is such sublime beauty to a ball well left that s hard to describe – in leaving that ball alone, he is acknowledging the skill of his opponents (bowlers, fielders, captains) and also showing us why he himself is on a higher plane. I often use this as a metaphor in a completely different arena, that of poker, where I say, “a good poker player is like a good test batsman; his ability is not always defined in the balls/hands he plays, but in the ones he lets go”. I think Rahul Dravid would make a fantastic poker player simply due to his mental abilities, but he currently finds himself as one of the all-time greats in cricket and we are all thankful for that.
He has been the ultimate team player – willing to take on anything (even responsibilities he doesn’t like such as opening the batting or keeping wickets). He was willing to move around in the batting order to suit the team. He took the blame for the 2007 disastrous world cup. He was willing to come back and play the ODI matches in 2011 because his team needed it. He was able to adapt well to the T20 and finds himself captain of the Rajasthan Royals. I dare say that Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman’s remarkable success through the late 90s and the 2000s was owed in part to him – he was able to play anchor and blunt bowling attacks (often very early) so that they had the easier time of it. The epic 2001 test between Australia and India would not have been considered one of the best cricket matches of all time if not for him (sure VVS gets most of the credit, but even he would not have been able to do much without the patient 180 made by Dravid at the other end). He brought the belief in the Indian team that we can win and win in any situation, be it home or away.
His Bradman Oration at the start of (what would become) his last tour was typical – simple self-deprecating humour interspersed with wisdom and genuine affection and concern for the game and its fans. I must admit I choked up when I heard it and I still do – whenever I go back and listen to it, which I do from time to time. Even his retirement speech showed how much love and respect he has for us fans and the game,
“Finally, I would like to thank the Indian cricket fan, both here and across the world. The game is lucky to have you and I have been lucky to play before you. To represent India, and thus to represent you, has been a privilege and one which I have always taken seriously. My approach to cricket has been reasonably simple: it was about giving everything to the team, it was about playing with dignity, and it was about upholding the spirit of the game. I hope I have done some of that. I have failed at times, but I have never stopped trying. It is why I leave with sadness but also with pride.”
I am yet to see sportspersons show this much affection and respect towards their fans. Sure, they all pay lip service at the end of a winning performance, but I doubt if anyone really thinks and cares so much about us. Dravid definitely understood the place that genuine fans hold for a sport – a sport exists mainly due to the fans and it can surely die if they choose to neglect it. Now if only everyone who played professional sport read that and took the advice seriously!
I answered a poll on an online news website about what he should do next – should be become a commentator, a coach, an administrator, etc. I honestly believe that he should become an administrator, like that legendary former teammate of his, Anil Kumble. Cricket (especially today) requires people of integrity and vision to step in and take charge – to ensure that the future of the sport will be bright and not lost in the show business-type mentality. I really hope that he decides to give back to the sport that has given him so much and I think that everyone will be the better for it.
I once had the opportunity to see the man live, not on a cricket field but at a literary fest at an engineering college in Bangalore back in 1999. He had arrived as a chief guest for the event, not because he wanted to show off his celebrity, but (from what I understood) as a favor to a friend (yup he is that type of person). He was not 5 feet away from me and before I could whip out a pen and paper for an autograph, he was whisked away in a car. I will rue the moment forever. I hope that I get the chance to meet him again to make good a chance to shake his hand and get that autograph.
[Here is another nice sentimental piece about Dravid’s retirement which also inspired me to write this post.]
[Harsha Bhogle says it well too.]